Election 2008 was not as dramatic, and did not have as many plot twists, as political commentators suggested at the time. So say Andrew Gelman and John Sides in the September edition of the Boston Review. Their rundown of voting returns, poll results, and journalistic memes is a good antidote to romanticized reporting:
The Obama victory was historic, but it was not surprising; Obama shifted, but did not redraw, the electoral map; race and class mattered, but not in the way people assumed they would matter; and partisan loyalty was powerful even as partisan defections like Colin Powell’s garnered headlines. Furthermore, it is simply too soon to tell how and how much campaign tactics mattered, whether this election’s outcome constitutes a realignment in voting behavior, and whether Obama has emerged with a mandate.
A couple of quibbles, though. First, I agree that the obsession over Electoral College strategy threatens to overshadow the fact that elections are still about national trends. As Gelman and Sides write, "the economy shifted the whole terrain in the Democrats' favor and Obama took advantage of this." (You really have to go back to 1948 for an election in which both the Democratic and Republican nominees scooped up several states that had gone to the other party four years before.)
That said, every election has its quirky geographic outcomes that may or may not prove long-lasting. The prime example of 2008 was Indiana, where the Democratic percentage jumped 11 points from the last election (versus an increase of 5 points in the US as a whole). Gelman and Sides note that Obama's field operations probably pushed up his vote totals in states like Indiana and North Carolina, but it's going take another election before it's safe to dismiss the idea that that the two parties' geographic bases did, in fact, shift somewhat in 2008.
Second, Gelman and Sides's skepticism toward the idea that a presidential election results in a "mandate" should be disheartening to anyone who's not a fan of congressional gridlock. It may indeed be true that presidential election results don't necessarily carry much weight in Congress, but I don't agree with what seems to be the authors' excusal for that outcome:
We cannot assume that people voted for Obama based on detailed knowledge of his policy positions.... Instead people often choose a preferred candidate and then rationalize issue positions to fit this preference. So we cannot interpret an election outcome as a wholesale endorsement of the winner’s policy proposals (or as a wholesale rejection of the loser’s).
But even with an informed electorate, there can't be a "wholesale" (or "blanket") endorsement of all of the winning candidate's proposals. That doesn't mean that there can never be a mandate for broad proposals (like health care reform) or ideological approaches.
And there is a possible contradiction in the Boston Review piece in that Gelman and Sides also note that "Approximately 90 percent of the public identifies with or leans toward one of the two major parties, and the vast majority of partisans supports their party's presidential candidate." To me, that seems very different than the notion that more than a small number of voters "chose a preferred candidate and then rationalize issue positions to fit this preference." If a voter actually chooses a candidate on the basis of party affiliation, I don't see how rationalization (or ignorance) of that candidate's issue positions can be inferred.
I think it's premature to dismiss the idea of a mandate from 2008. Of course, if a large number of people who voted for Obama start protesting the very idea of health care reform, something I haven't yet seen documented, then I'll concede that there was no policy mandate in last year's election outcome.